Ice cream can’t be clung to, it melts even in the twilight breeze.
The octopus has trouble with letting go. He clings to past comforts, refusing to accept change and loss as part of the passage of time. Late this evening he is found gripping to an ice cream truck trying to squeeze out every last drop of sweetness and unable to accept the reality that life’s pleasures, like all phenomena, are fleeting... “I must try harder, for there’s surely more inside” he laments. “It simply can’t be finished!” But, it is. Each moment he clings to what is lost, he ignores the opportunity to grow and adjust to the world around him, and sadness plagues him till his tears create an ocean in the streets. Will the octopus ever learn that we cannot cling to ice cream?
Sadness is one of the most difficult and complicated emotions we experience. We might notice a sense of helplessness, feeling lost, hurting or isolation, with tears welling in our eyes or a sinking feeling in our gut. If we fail to get the promotion we were working towards or receive news about heroes in ill health, sadness arises to mark the occasion. This basic human emotion arises from the inevitable losses and failures we experience throughout our life, especially one’s which we have no power to change. If we listen, we can hear, “That achievement was so special to us, but it doesn’t belong to us.” It reveals that, “It’s time to evaluate what’s truly important,” and it urges that, “it’s time for change.” Yet, despite how universal and natural this feeling is, many of us find sadness so aversive that it’s nearly impossible to work with. Instead, we continue holding the things we must let go of and place unrealistic expectations on what our circumstances can truly provide.
Aside from being a healthy emotional response to irrevocably life changing events, sadness is felt more intensely and frequently when we lack resilience and coping skills. If we feel we don’t have control over our life circumstances, each unexpected hurdle is perceived as an unsurmountable obstruction to our wants and needs rather than a healthy challenge. Conversely, people with effective coping strategies are more resilient and fluid within sad events in their lives. They recognise sadness as a healthy part of adaptation which encourages better understanding of their lives and circumstances. Thankfully, this is a skill we can all learn and grow within, provided we are open to understanding what sadness is and working with its message. While sadness may mean the closing of one chapter it also means the opportunity to write a new one.
So, how can we better understand the function of sadness? It may be helpful to start from a fundamental psychological perspective, although it may seem simplistic at first. We have two main behavioural systems which help us achieve our human needs. From the most basic and essential categories of food, shelter and safety to a meaningful life with human connection and self-actualisation. One system governs our approach towards rewarding outcomes and goals while another avoids detrimental ones. In this fundamental perspective, emotions such as sad feelings are thought to arise as feedback which then motivates our behaviour, such as a re-evaluation of our approach towards an unattainable reward. They work in a system of emotions like joy, elation and anger to motivate our behavioural activation system. In this spectrum, it’s thought that joy signals that we are performing better than required while sadness signals that our circumstances are not fit for the desired outcome. This recognition might prompt a surge of anger that motivates more focused personal resources for the task, but essentially it’s concerned with the possibility that our personal resources are not enough. This emotional feedback is remarkable because it’s designed to continually prompt us to adjust to the reality of our environment, the key to survival and a meaningful life. For this reason it’s paramount that we befriend emotions like sadness and listen to it’s message for effective adaptation whenever the opportunity arises.
Listening to sadness does take practice and involves the cultivation of self-awareness, even at a mundane level. Perhaps a sentimental coffee cup gets broken and you notice a subtle sinking in your chest, or maybe your computer crashes after several hours of writing and you can’t shake the disappointment. By starting small and noticing how sadness directs our adaptive behaviour throughout the day we grow our capacity to face sadness in our more defining moments. Can we remember why the cup was special to us? Should we spend two hours trying to restore lost data and making excuses, or do we recall what made the work good and use our experience to write something better? While these may be trivial questions in the grand scheme, they act like weights do for the growth of muscles. Listening to sadness as a source of motivational feedback at these trivial moments is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it illuminates on a daily basis our functional values, making our life more fundamentally meaningful. Secondly, the experience prepares us for times where major and irrevocable loses threaten to overwhelm us with existential questions and difficulties. Knowing how to listen to sadness and work with it becomes a precious skill during major losses and failures, as these are the key moments which define our lives narratives and the people we strive to become.
What might listening to sadness during a major and irrevocable loss achieve? Isn’t sadness something we should ignore and avoid? Well, when we listen to sadness we can hear it prompting us towards healthy adjustment, something that can’t readily be achieved by avoidance. To begin with, you’ll hear sadness coaxing you to conserve energy. A major side effect of feeling low is a loss of interest in our favourite hobbies and the need to withdraw from our routines. That’s because dealing with major losses and failures requires adaptive changes like letting go and developing new ambitions that align with our true values. The energy we divert from our routines is instead directed towards processing and adjusting to the life altering change, our metamorphosis.
There may be well-meaning people who view this disengagement as a tragedy and encourage you to remain involved at all costs. “Don’t mope at home, get back out there!” Of course, there are times when this advice is needed, such as when sadness has become a maladaptive, pervasive process that blocks progress or interferes with the ability to feel other emotions for extended periods of time. In such cases, people may be experiencing depression, something which sadness is part of, but which is a biopsychosocial condition with its own unique characteristics. Sadness can also come as an element of grief or heart break. But people’s advice to push on and stay engaged with our routines generally comes too early and encourages avoidance of the core issues that lead to sad feelings in the first place. Sadness is the emotional feedback that informs our motivational forces, only the person experiencing it knows when it’s time to carry on.
Avoidance and distraction generally come from an unhealthy perspective and negative bias towards sadness. We feel averse to sadness because we judge it as being a bad emotion, an appraisal system described as metacognition in psychology which magnifies the negative (or positive) attributes of experiences. By attaching a negative label to a natural and adaptive emotion we start a downward cycle of negativity, making the experience seem worse than it truly is. We can take charge of this metacognitive process by acknowledging that while ‘Yes,’ sadness is feedback we weren’t hoping to hear in the ordinary sense, it’s really an opportunity to learn and grow. There’s no sense in showing up to a job that goes against our personal values every day, and forcing ourselves to live in conflict with the self-actualisation of a meaningful life. Sad emotional feedback arises in these kinds of scenarios as a golden opportunity to adapt in a meaningful and productive way. Internal change and personal growth only occur when we identify the underlying causes of uncomfortable emotions and adapt to the situation. Adaptation may involve changing our internal expectations so that they match our external reality or recalibrating a goal in the face of adversity, both of which will require a level of personal resources. Despite our apprehension towards challenging emotions, when thought of this way they offer us a gateway to a well lived life.
For those who are willing to face the uncomfortable feeling that accompanies sad emotions, withdrawal is a necessary element in the adaptive function of letting go, shifting perspective and ushering internal change. When we feel withdrawn, our focus narrows to what has become unattainable, missing or lost so that we can solve the internal conflicts that arise. Perhaps we need to evaluate why a failed goal was so important to us, why it was unattainable, and how we can build a new goal that incorporates our core values. The emotion of sadness prevents us from wasting personal resources (time, energy, finances) in pursuit of distractions and that which is not destined for us and challenges us to divert our energies toward more authentic horizons. It may be uncomfortable, but mindful and curious exploration of our emotions and what they reflect about our lives is essential to effective adaptation.
Being able to adapt to our life circumstances leads to a greater sense of wellbeing, and is linked to better mental and physical health outcomes. One study showed that as people age, they respond to situations in ways that better utilise their personal resources and this resulted in better adaptation and higher wellbeing. While younger people who utilise low levels of anger (for courage) to approach an opportunity were better able to adapt to their circumstances, older people who strategically utilise letting go were able to adapt in similarly helpful ways. Other studies have also shown that people who utilise different emotions in adapting to the circumstances of their lives had better life outcomes. When presented with scenarios that required influence over others, participants chose to feel anger and determination. But when presented with a scenario where influence could not be exercised, they chose sadness in seeking support from others. Sadness is a beautiful and adaptive emotion.
Sadness is fundamentally an opportunity to adapt by letting go of the unattainable, yet there is another beautiful function – connection. Sadness gives rise to the desire to be understood and seek support from others. The vulnerability bought on by sadness results in body language and expressions which help re-establish our bonds with family and friends by attracting their care, love and empathy when we need it most. When we connect, there’s the opportunity to share our feelings and learn that we are living a universal and fundamental human experience. An important part of this connection lies in discussing our feelings openly with those we trust, particularly where the goal is to have them understand how we feel. This conversation leads to integration of experiences and strengthens cognitive flexibility, an element of effective coping and overall wellbeing. There is debate on whether disclosing feelings to others is truly useful, with some evidence saying that focusing attention towards immediate negative feelings blocks our ability to find solutions. It is possible that the sense of helplessness and lack of control bought on by sad events might lead to rumination, where we repeat negative content in an effort to solve an unsolvable reality. For example, one study has found that turning inward through creative writing and recounting the causes of sadness actually served to exacerbate the symptoms and didn’t lead to resolution. But this finding reminds us of the importance of learning functional disclosure as a sharing activity that builds connection with others and garners additional perspectives, care and empathy. Effectively sharing our emotions with others leads to a broadening of perspective that equips us to make better life decisions, and even leads to improved immune functioning. It’s really quite beautiful how this feeling brings us what is needed during our most difficult times, encouraging us to make peace with the past and make way for a better future.
If we judge sadness as a ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ emotion it will be more difficult to regulate, so our response will be less meaningful and less effective. These judgments lead us to reactively avoid, ignore or even suppress sadness; and while these strategies might provide short-term relief, they don’t help us grow or maintain wellbeing in the long term. Reactivity is a missed opportunity for healthy adjustment, maturity, and the development of psychological flexibility; ingredients that build positive wellbeing through improved emotional intelligence. Recognising sadness with non-judgment and seeing it as part of an emotional feedback system allows for the cause and effect nature of our emotions to unfold. All emotions, including sadness, are part of internal motivational forces which guide us in approaching our goals and desires. By not labelling sadness as good or bad, we can investigate the emotional feedback with openness to determine what challenges are blocking us and our lives. This process helps us to let go of unattainable goals and begin seeking new authentic ones. This can be an uncomfortable process at first but gives us an opportunity to build a truly meaningful and rewarding life through deep, experiential understanding. This difficult process gets easier and more rewarding with each practice, helping us to make decisions which are better aligned with our personal values.
There are so many other ways to discuss the message of sadness, how it works and some of the difficulties that arise in working with it. This illustration and blog introduces a few concepts and points. Learning to be receptive to the message that sadness heralds ultimately illuminates the beauty of life through its fragility. “Let it go,” says sadness, “so that new things may come.”